It isn't fair to say that Rory Segrest has no clue about what he really, truly, no-doubt-about-it has from top to bottom on special teams. Segrest knows, for example, that David Akers has a great track record as the best kicker in Eagles history and that he has had a terrific off-season. He knows he has a baseline, season-long performance to project expectations for second-year punter Sav Rocca, a daily story last year who is now the punter. Period.
Other than that, though, well, Segrest, the Eagles' special teams coordinator, is looking forward to Friday night's preseason game as much as anybody, because it is the first time his group plays in game conditions, at that tempo, with that pressure.
Game on, and let the evaluations go to another level.
That's why we go out and play, and we're excited about finding out," said Segrest.."Right now though, we've got some experience coming back, and it looks like we'll have a couple of good returners there, and we're interested in seeing what they have at game tempo."
I'm not going to go through much-repeated blah, blah, blah about how important special teams are, or about the areas in which the special teams need to improve. How about everywhere? Everything? That is the nature of special teams: You can't regress in any areas. You always have to improve across the board, or you are costing the team field position, or points.
Segrest is in a different place than last year. Then, he was a first-year coordinator who, ultimately, worked with a very young group. See, a special teams coach only knows the players he can work with until the 53-man roster is established. What happens if the third-string linebacker happens to be somebody Segrest things can be a help-now special teams player? Well, it depends on what a team can keep but there are players the special teams coordinator are going to lose to the waiver wire. That's just how it is, and that's how it was for Segrest.
So Segrest built around the younger guys. The special teams struggled along the way -- no sense re-living the pain -- but they got better in coverage and they got better blocking and they were just more solid as the season went along. Here and there, Correll Buckhalter or J.R. Reed would get the ball beyond the 30- or 35-yard line (the two combined for six 30-plus yard kickoff returns in the final six games), but Segrest wanted to be more "explosive" this season.
Enter DeSean Jackson on punt returns and Lorenzo Booker and Quintin Demps on kickoff returns. They need to add the "explosive" to the description of the Eagles' special teams. Segrest has seen the return teams every day in practice, but he won't really "see" them until Friday night at Heinz Field.
Understand that NFL teams don't run kick returns full speed in practice. There is too much of a risk of injury, so the drills are run at a high tempo, but there is no tackling.
On Friday night, Segrest gets a chance to see his teams "live" for the first time.
In Jackson, he has a rookie who comes to the NFL after a spectacular career as a return man in college. Jackson was able to make the first man down the field miss in college, and then he could accelerate to a speed that nobody at that level could catch.
Jackson has shown all of those attributes in practice, beginining with the most-important skill that he can catch a punt cleanly and reliably. He has to take his skill set to the field in a game that will be played at the highest tempo he has ever experienced. Segrest said this about Jackson in June, and it holds true to this day:
"He still hasn't taken any snaps in the NFL yet," said Segrest. "He did a great job in college, he showed some definite ability and we're just excited about getting him out in a live situation and we can't wait to get him into the preseason and see what he does at this level."
Jackson, clearly, has been a player to study since the Eagles called his name in the second round of April's draft. And Segrest has been absolutely on cue with understanding how Jackson performed in college and what he might be able to do at this level. Everyone who has seen him certainly sees something potentialy special, though ...
One week after the draft, Segrest was asked about Jackson, time and again.
"We're definitely excited about his potential at returner for us. At the same time, he hasn't played a snap in the NFL, so we're interested in seeing how he carries that over into his first NFL contest. We think he's going to do a really good job for us. He's got the speed, he's got the quickness, and he's got really good field vision. We're excited about him.
"I think vision is a big part of it. DeSean is a guy who knows how to set up blocks. He has the acceleration to hit those creases once he identifies them. Again, he's a guy who, with his quickness, his speed, his vision, he's got the components to put together to be an effective returner for us."
From college to the NFL, Segrest said, requires an adjustment.
"There's a little bit of a speed difference. Obviously, there are a lot better athletes on the field on the NFL level across the board. From a speed standpoint, there might be situations where in college he could get to the edge and outrun guys there and all of a sudden, he has a little bit difference of speed in terms of the angles he has to be. Those are things we're looking forward to in the preseason games. Hopefully, he can get a feel for that quickly and be ready to go once we hit the regular season."
In Booker, Segrest sees a return man who can get up and through the hole very quickly. The questions the coaches had about Booker have been answered, to this point.
"He's a guy that has great speed, great speed and great vision. Very similar to the running back position, he knows where the reads are, he knows where to break off of those reads," said Segrest. "One thing that we were questioning there was whether or not he would be able to break the tackles, and he's shown out here during the some live practice sessions that he is capable of breaking tackles. It's obviously a little bit different on the kick return aspect of it, you've got guys flying around coming downhill at him, but we feel like he could definitely get the job done here."
Every kick means something for Segrest and the Eagles and you on Friday night. This is go time for that phase of the Eagles' team.
It's time to play, then.